Lost in Translation: Does your Hummer have Pontoons?

March 18, 2007

As a counterweight to these somber posts — ironically, all in response to a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek blog post — I offer this African version of Lost in Translation, an account of what happens when heat, bureaucracy, border crossings, and fading memories of a language all conspire to create a misunderstanding…thankfully one with a happy ending.

botswana.jpgI spent four years in the early 1990’s in Botswana, an arid, beautiful, diamond-producing country in southern Africa, just north of South Africa. As a former British protectorate, English is well and widely spoken, but taking a stab at learning the dominant local language — Setswana — proved an invaluable asset for me.

Fast forward one graduate degree, several jobs, several countries, and six years of marriage later…I thought Botswana would be an excellent place to spend part of our Christmas 2005 holiday.


After an exhausting double redeye trip — during which we were re-routed twice until finally settling on an SFO-LAX-Dulles-Accra-Johannesburg itinerary — we landed in South Africa for a day of R&R before heading up north into Botswana in a rented 4-door sedan. We spent four marvelous days retracing some of my old haunts in Botswana as well as game viewing at the Mokolodi Nature Reserve, highlights of which included spectacular sunsets and thunder storms and re-experiencing the magic comedy of nature’s pre-eminent dung collector, the dung beetle.

border-crossing-2.jpgOn the fifth morning, we reluctantly headed back towards South Africa so that we could catch a flight that afternoon from Johannesburg to Cape Town, South Africa’s answer to San Francisco. Running a bit late (per our custom) we decided to enter South Africa via a close but less commonly-used border crossing, one which I had never used during the dozens of times I crossed the border while living there.

Thrilled with how much Setswana I still remembered, and determined not to play the role of the stereotypical rude, clueless foreigner, I thought I’d try to do the whole border encounter without resorting to English — which, of course, the border personnel all understood fluently.

We got out of our rental car and approached the first immigration official.

“Dumela, mma,” I greeted her.

Sweat poring off her brow — it was at least 95 degrees and this particular office was not endowed with air conditioning — she looked up at me from her desk with great effort. “Dumela” she responded.

“O tshogile?” I continued in the polite vein of Setswana introductions, “How did you wake?”

“Ke tshogile, le wena?” “I rose well, and you?” This was going well. The hours of language study I had put in over a decade earlier were paying off.

“Le nna, ke tshogile. Tle mma, ke kopa di-forms tsa immigration.”

By this time she was thoroughly engaged. Botswana has a small white population, so though it’s not completely unheard of for a blond guy to speak Setswana, it’s unusual enough that I had piqued her curiosity, especially because the Setswana I was using was polite, informal, and colloquial enough to not be exclusively textbook-driven. I had asked the equivalent of, “Hey, how you doing? I need some immigration forms” and not “Greetings madam. I kindly request that you direct me to the location of the immigration forms.”

“Di ka kwa,” she said, gesturing across the office towards a shelf. “Lo ya kae?” she asked curiously. I headed over and grabbed two forms, filling them in in about 30 seconds. The border between Botswana and South Africa is well-travelled, and one can cross with a minimum of fuss.

“Re ya kwa Cape Town.”

What she said next should have been my first clue. “Go na le metsi.”

Word for word, I knew exactly what she had said, but it made no sense in the context. “There is water.” My wheels started turning. What was she communicating? Was this one of those rich Setswana proverbs, perhaps? Was she commenting that there is water — ie. an ocean — in Cape Town? Was she referring to the recent rains? That didn’t seem likely, since she hadn’t used the first word you learn when you live in Botswana: pula, or “rain”, such an important word in this dry country that the national currency is also the pula.

“Mma?” I asked, hoping for some clarification.

“Go na le metsi,” she replied as she took out her stamp, inked in, and then, with the resounding and confident thud used by immigration officials the world over, stamped our passports and our immigration forms.

I was proud enough of having pulled off nearly a complete conversation in Setswana, a decade since leaving, and I wasn’t going to ruin it by resorting to English. “Dankie, mma. Go siame.” I thanked her and said goodbye, pretending I had fully understood what she had said.

We walked to the next office for the next bit of paperwork. The official there, a man, was similarly impressed with my Setswana. During our brief conversation he gave me the second clue: “Lo tsamaya ka koloi efe?” Again, the words made sense, and I responded by telling him that we were traveling in a four-door sedan. “Go siame,” he shrugged.

Walking back to the car, I was both elated and puzzled. What were they trying to tell me? “What kind of car do you have?” and “There is water.”

We got in and started our drive through the quarter mile no-man’s land separating the two countries. We turned a corner…and suddenly it all made sense.


“What kind of car do you have? + “There is water” = “Does your Hummer have pontoons.”

With the recent rains, the normally dry river bed that formed the border was now overflowing. Since this was an infrequently used crossing, there was no bridge, and it was our bad luck to be there on one of the perhaps dozen days a year when this river was more than a trickle.

Now what? It would take us another 45 minutes to backtrack and head to one of the other larger border crossings.

Some teenage boys on the other side of the 100-ft river started yelling at us. “It’s ok! Come through! It’s only waist deep! We will direct you!” They demonstrated by wading in and walking to the middle. Sure enough, it was only waist deep. That would bring it up to only, oh, the bottom of the windows on the car?

There’s only one kind of vehicle that has more durability than a 4X4, and that’s a rental vehicle. I told my wife to hang on, we rolled up the windows, and I gunned it along the route the guides had indicated. The car entered the river — fortunately the road here was concrete — and within a second the car was in up to the top of the tires. No turning back. I continued, and sure enough, a short second later the water was up to the bottom of the windows. Another second — wait, is that the engine stalling? No, thank God — and finally the water started receding as we climbed up the other bank.

We stopped a few yards later and rolled down the windows. “That was fun!”

The teenagers pulled up and we thanked them. A few dollars later and we were on our way.


Notes: Map of Africa courtesy of Google. The picture of the Botswana side of the border crossing is actually of a different crossing than the one we were at, but it was the only picture I had. Mea culpa.

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10 Responses to “Lost in Translation: Does your Hummer have Pontoons?

  1. Maureen Francis on March 19th, 2007 3:47 am

    I love a good travel story. Rental cars to the rescue! I am also reminded of when I worked in Ukraine and was still learning the language. I had been there a few months and had just received my Peace Corps stipend of $150 which was converted into millions of Kupons, the local currency. I mixed up the words for “pregnant” and “rich” as I tried to explain how delighted I was that I had finally received my living allowance from the US government. I could not figure out why my colleagues were staring at me with puzzled looks on their faces. But I was standing in the middle of the room saying “I’m pregnant!” and I understand why they had no idea what to do. When we all figured out my mistake it was pretty funny.

  2. Kevin Boer, Realtor, 3 Oceans Real Estate on March 19th, 2007 6:33 am

    You were in the Peace Corps too? Pretty cool.

    I made a similar gaffe when I said “The moon is pregnant” instead of “The moon is full.” I got a similar reaction to what it sounds you did.

    Sounds like we were paid much better than Ukraine volunteers. :) We got around $250 per month! Plus, we had it pretty easy by comparison to some other volunteers. We had electricity, running water, well-stocked schools and classrooms, working telephones. Shoot, if it had been a few years later we probably would even have had working wifi!

  3. Loren on March 19th, 2007 8:37 am


    That is the best travel story I have read in a while.

    I was almost sure you were going to tell me you flooded the engine.

    If you did I was going to LMAO.

    Anyhow i still got a good laugh from the story.


  4. Kevin Boer, Realtor, 3 Oceans Real Estate on March 19th, 2007 9:05 am

    Hi Loren,

    It probably wasn’t the smartest thing for me to do, but what the heck — it was a rental car!

  5. Kristal Kraft on March 19th, 2007 1:49 pm

    Kevin ~ I admire you for many things. 1) Taking the time to learn a language 2) remembering it long after you needed too. 3) taking your family on an awesome adventure
    4) sharing it with me.
    The flag of Sud Africa is one of my favorites.

  6. Kevin Boer, Realtor, 3 Oceans Real Estate on March 19th, 2007 1:59 pm

    Hi Kristal, I had a lot of fun learning Setswana, actually. It’s a much more consistent language than English once you learn the rules. It has a rich vocabulary, some outrageous proverbs, and we had fun putting together tongue twisters.

    Rich vocabulary: The most commonly used word for window is “fensetere” which comes, I believe, indirectly from Latin via French and Afrikaans. The original word, however, is something like, “seokomelabagwe” which, roughly translated, means, “That through which one peers at the inlaws.”

    Tongue twisters: My favorite was “Go goga ga gago ga go gontle,” meaning “Your smoking is not beautiful.”

  7. Anonymous on March 19th, 2007 7:52 pm

    I hadn’t ever heard this story before. Trust you and T to have such an experience while travelling…

    I have a good “lost in translation” story from when we lived in Japan but it’d bring some adult content to your blog and we wouldn’t want that to happen.

    Ba ta taba tabataba ko ta taba ko bata taba tabata ba.


  8. Kevin Boer, Realtor, 3 Oceans Real Estate on March 19th, 2007 7:55 pm

    To Cynthia:

    Not to be an ITK, but I think you meant, Ba ta taba tabata ba, ko ta taba taba taba, ko bata taba taba tabata ba.

  9. Mom on March 20th, 2007 6:17 pm

    What a great story. I’m ready to hear more!

    Actually, both of you are wrong. Ba ta tabata ba, ko ta taba tabata ko ba ta taba tabata ba. At least I think that’s the way I taught it to you years ago.


  10. Lost in Translation 2: Where’s The White Dude Going? | 3 Oceans -- The San Francisco Bay Area Real Estate Blog on April 8th, 2007 2:02 pm

    [...] I seem to have a thing for linguistic errors in Southern Africa; I’ve told my story about crossing the Border from Botswana to South Africa during December 2005. Many years prior to that, when I was living in Botswana as a Peace Corps volunteers in the early 1990’s, I made my share of blunders. [...]

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